The situation is so common that no one notices it is a problematic one. Over green tea and sugar-free biscuits served on a silver tray, hints of suffocation begin to show. A forced laugh here, a pair of pressed lips there. “He says he earns enough, there is no need for his wife to earn,” says one woman, an MBA and mother of two teenagers, who has so much time on her hands she has begun to sprout seeds of sadness that rise above her blonde highlighted hair like a cloud and follow even the Audi she drives.
The second woman has dark patches under her eyes, and the dermatologist is being a pig about it. “The doctor says it’s just stress, and refuses to give me anything for it,” the 38-year-old svelte yoga addict mourns. She craves some kind of a career, but her husband thinks she would be neglecting her home duties if she stepped out to work, and besides, there was really no point in her working unless she earned several lakhs a month, at least.
The third woman, a few years older, wiser, a gold medallist in her post-graduate years, advises the other two to follow her example. “At the time of my marriage, my in-laws had a condition: they did not want a working girl. But I wanted to do something of my own. Yes, it took me two decades but look at me now.” She runs classes for children at home twice a week in their large, tastefully decorated basement that also hosts the frequent parties her in-laws like to throw.
It could be a scene anywhere in India – in swish gated neighbourhoods in Delhi or Mumbai, or a palatial bungalow in Bhopal or Lucknow.
There is an insidious, pervading Lakshman Rekha (invisible boundary) drawn around women in affluent classes, or those on their way up the socio-economic ladder. Its perks flow generously inward – fancy cars, diamonds, international holidays, foreign education for the children, decadent homes – but it allows no step outward.
The job profile is stringent. The candidate must remain silent, subservient to the needs of the family, suppress her own ambitions, be fit and impeccably groomed in appearance, gracious in public, and imperiously efficient in running her army of domestic helpers.
Transgression is swiftly dealt with insults, violence or material restrictions, perhaps a reduction in ‘pocket money’ or an additional benefit bestowed on some other candidate, the competitor, in the home.
Not everyone can reject the situation and walk away, like I did. Not everyone wants to. It costs too much, and besides after a while there is no longer any desire for an alternative life and the Lakshman Rekha lulls you into a drowsy sense of security. This is a comfort zone. You are safe here, your every need served on a platter.
What is the need to struggle, to earn your own way, to lose honour and respect in society just for the sake of personal fulfilment? We must be happy for what we have, God is great.
Even so, once in a while, a tell-tale sign slips through. An angrily wiped tear here, a hug held longer than usual there. Then the walls close in and only a bright lipsticked smile can be seen.
FACT BOX: WOMEN @ WORK
Women earned 53% of undergraduate degrees; 69.6% of M.Phil degrees; and 41.8% of PhDs in India in 2018-19.
India’s female Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR) – the share of working-age women who are employed or available for employment – fell to a historic low of 23.3% in 2017-18 and is one of the lowest in the world. It is 78.6% for Indian men.
The rate is lowest for Muslim and upper-caste Hindu women.
An increase of just 10 percentage points could add $770 billion to India’s GDP by 2025.
Photo by Büşra Özcan / Unsplash. First published in eShe’s March 2020 issue